New Indie release BEASTS OF NO NATION is a brutal, gritty portrait of violence in Africa through the eyes and experience of a child soldier. It is based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala and directed and written for the screen by Cary Fukunaga, who, though young, has made quite a following through his direction of TRUE DETECTIVE’s first season.
The film is beginning its limited run in theaters and streaming on Netflix starting October 16th. As distributor, Netflix got 100% behind the film, and for good reason. There is a terrible truth at the root of the story captured so authentically by the filmmakers, with the visceral footage and nightmarish images, it will be seared into viewers’ memories for quite some time.
It is a story of survival, lost innocence, and the despair, hope, and tenacity children show in the face of the worst inhumane brutalities. The story takes place in a West African country that remains unnamed and follows pre-teen Agu, (Abraham Attah) as his life devolves from living with his family, finding some joy, and making due in dangerous times, to losing his family, being captured by a unit of guerrilla fighters, and being forced to become a child soldier by their enigmatic leader, Commandant. Agu befriends another soldier his age, a mute named Strika played by Emmenuel Nii Adom Quaye. Their relationship is one of the saddest, most poignant aspects of the film. They attempt to support each other as they suffer but are powerless to make things better for each other.
This movie is a breathtaking, heartbreaking film that leaves a stomach ache. Why watch it? The grounded, authentic portrayal of Agu by newcomer Abraham Attah, a tremendous find that makes imagining anyone else in the role impossible, and the complex, nuanced work by Idris Elba as Commandant where he is at once terrifying and magnetic, are the paramount reasons. The Commandant, who manipulates and brainwashes through fear, is like a rotten, maggoty piece of fruit those around him are too starved not to eat. Elba has the kind of calm presence as an actor he can turn into something menacing, but does so while somehow extracting what might be defined at pity from the viewer, even as he is forcing children to commit unspeakable acts of evil. The film is shot with an awareness of the lush landscape of the African interior, and it feels almost languid juxtaposed against the battle scarred villages littered with the personal effects of refugees on the run and the bodies of those caught in the crossfire. The editing has a the level of precision that removes any obvious emotional manipulation, allowing the action and actors to drive the story, which is as it should be. One of Fukunaga’s best qualities as a director is his lack of sentimentality, which serves to make BEASTS OF NO NATION approachable and affecting in a way few other filmmakers could accomplish.
The narration done by Attah as Agu is what drives and connects the audience to stay with him. What starts out as a retelling of events first becomes like a diary of his loss of passion for life, as his childlike curiosity turns to apathy. He voice becomes hardened as he is forced into being both victim and perpetrator, and ultimately it turns into a meditation or prayer. He is talking and begging god, wondering about forgiveness, though he knows with what he has done there can be none.
It may be to some degree the devolution of Agu’s faith and understanding of human value is a metaphor for the political situation in a number of African countries, but this story of one child, still representative of the grim situation of so many child soldiers around the world, will strike home to anyone with compassion or empathy.
I spoke to both Abraham Attah and Cary Fukunaga about the film. I asked how Abraham kept himself sane between takes on such an intense, difficult shoot:
I asked Cary what drew him to the subject matter and creating this movie: